Typecast as a Terrorist

Typecast as a Terrorist

The detainment of two actors from The Road to Guantánamo reveals a legal apparatus that is no longer able to distinguish between real and invented threats.


The story of the three British men (known as the Tipton Three) who traveled to Pakistan in 2001 and were indiscriminately swept up during the US bombing of Afghanistan, replayed itself rather unexpectedly when two actors in a new Michael Winterbottom film, The Road to Guantánamo, and the men they portray were held at Luton Airport in Bedfordshire, England, two weeks before the film’s March 9 television broadcast in Britain.

Rizwan Ahmed and Farhad Harun, who play former Guantánamo inmates Shafiq Rasul and Ruhel Ahmed, were detained for nearly two hours under Britain’s Terrorism Act. The four men were on their way home from the Berlin Film Festival, where the film received the Silver Bear for best director.

The film tells the story of the three men from Tipton in the West Midlands who traveled to Pakistan for a planned wedding and later decided to visit Afghanistan at the behest of an imam urging his members to offer assistance to families. They survived the slaughter of prisoners by Northern Alliance troops under Afghan warlord Gen. Rashid Dostum and were eventually handed over to the United States and sent to Guantánamo Bay, where they were held for more than two years before being released in 2004.

Although the men were proved innocent, they were Muslims in a country that harbored Muslim terrorists. The analogy is, of course, that not all weeds are harmful. As Mark Winston notes in his study of people and pests, “what is a weed and what is desirable vegetation is largely a product of our personal societal decisions.” However, the West has been slow to learn from such stories.

Rizwan Ahmed, one of the detained actors, was interrogated by three Special Branch officers and said that one of them asked if he “intended to do more documentary films, specifically more political ones like The Road to Guantánamo. She asked, ‘Did you become an actor mainly to do films like this, to publicize the struggles of Muslims?’ ”

Actors flinch at the thought of being typecast. My guess is that Ahmed answered no; he is not planning to limit himself to the same role. To the interrogator’s credit, however, she was able to distinguish between the actors and former inmates, a marked improvement over the inability to distinguish between terrorists and nonterrorists.

One could almost call it Kafkaesque if it weren’t so transparent. What it suggests is not a tangled web of bureaucracy and authoritarianism, surreal manifestations of power and repression, but the base stupidity of a legal apparatus that is no longer capable of and no longer required to distinguish between real and invented threats. The Tipton Three and the actors who depict them do not pose a threat to national security but rather to the fictions that the United States and Britain have constructed in order to prosecute their war.

As Reprieve Legal Director Clive Stafford Smith noted when the men were released, “It is particularly telling that actors who played Guantánamo prisoners should be detained on the day after the government pushed through its terror bill, making criminals of those who ‘glorify’ terrorism. Who’s next? Is Ken Stott going to be detained because he played the greatest terrorist of them all, Adolf Hitler? This is a glaring indictment of the government’s approach to ‘terror’ and demonstrates how far the British government has already emulated the Bush Administration’s disdain for basic human rights and freedoms.”

The logic seems to be: If you can’t find the real terrorists, find people who resemble them. If they turn out to be innocent and can defend themselves (it should be remembered that the Tipton Three speak English, unlike many of the other inmates at Guantánamo), then find those who dramatize their stories, who defend them, who speak for them, and let them know that they too are suspects, that they too are aiding and abetting the enemy. Or maybe they are the enemy.

While The Road to Guantánamo has yet to find a US distributor, Winterbottom, who directed the recently released adaptation of Tristram Shandy, has managed to create two cock and bull stories: one of his own doing, resurrected from an eighteenth-century novel that many thought an improbable cinematic experiment, and the other a more perverse state-sponsored version of a tale that has become all too familiar.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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